"The Iron Lung and Polio" by Mark Rockoff, MD  for OPENPediatrics

"The Iron Lung and Polio" by Mark Rockoff, MD for OPENPediatrics

In this video, Dr. Rockoff talks about the history, development, and use of the iron lung in response to polio.

Initial publication: January 12, 2016.
Last reviewed: October 22, 2019.

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Poliomyelitis, commonly referred to as polio, is a frightening, contagious viral disease that can have devastating effects on the central nervous system. Children are most often affected, but adults can also be vulnerable as scene when future president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became infected in 1921 at the age of 39.

Though this illness has likely been around for millennia, it became more prevalent in the early to mid 1900s, as large epidemics occurred around the world. Ironically, these often happened in developed nations, including the United States, as improved sanitation led to reduced naturally acquired immunity.

Many children who were infected developed a fever and soon were unable to move their limbs. Some had such extensive involvement of their spinal chord that they also could not breathe effectively. When this occurred, death often resulted from respiratory failure. For many, little other than comfort measures were available for treatment.

However, Philip Drinker, an engineer at the Harvard School of Public Health, developed a simple, mechanical ventilator that could be used to provide effective respirations for individuals who were too weak to breathe on their own. This large device, which because of its construction became known as an iron lung, was first used to treat an eight-year-old girl with polio in 1928 at Boston Children's Hospital adjacent to the Harvard School of Public Health.

Soon thereafter, iron lungs were being mass produced and used to treat polio patients around the world. In the early 1950s, during the last large polio epidemics that occurred, much of Boston Children's Hospital was devoted to treating polio victims. However, due to the pioneering research work of John Enders, a microbiologist at Boston Children's Hospital, and his colleagues at the hospital, techniques were developed to culture the polio virus in the laboratory.

This enabled Dr. Salk and Sabin to develop vaccines that rapidly led to the eradication of this deadly disease. And in 1954, Drs. Enders, Weller, and Robbins received the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work. By the 1980s, iron lungs were virtually obsolete, having been replaced by much smaller and less cumbersome mechanical ventilators that are now used to treat patients with respiratory failure from other causes. In order to appreciate how an iron lung functions, the archives program at Boston Children's Hospital has restored an old lung and created this short video.